Jennifer Zieba, PhD
What to Expect When You're Expecting a Postdoc

So, you've accepted your first PostDoc. After years of grueling PhD work, you are now considered a professional in the field, you're brimming with confidence after successfully defending your thesis, and you're eager to make your mark on the scientific community. However, the transition into a postdoc can be one of the most difficult times in our career, and its impact on our mental health is seldom discussed.

Personally, I found the first six months of my postdoc to be more difficult than any full year of my PhD. As postdocs, we are expected to do the same amount of work as in our PhD, but in half the time, and in an unfamiliar field where we have to establish a name for ourselves, while also figuring out the next career move. On top of that, we may have just moved to a new city where we have yet to set up an emotional support system. All of these factors can weigh heavily on our mental health. Whether your new lab turns out to be a nightmare or the working environment of your dreams, here are three major pitfalls that I and other postdocs experienced when we started:

  1. Comparing your productivity to people around you. When joining a new lab, you may suddenly find that everyone else seems to be moving forward, while you are standing still. This feeling can be incredibly frustrating and anxiety inducing, but it is important to give yourself time to get used to your new environment and be aware that it's normal for things to move slowly for the first few months. Try to use your early days to do as much background reading as possible, so when your new project does get up and running, you'll have a strong base of knowledge to work from.
  2. Burning out early by joining too many projects. If you're frustrated by the feeling that you're not working enough, you may want to hop onto as many projects in the lab as you can. While it is important to participate in short term work at first, it may start to take time away from developing your own projects, and there might be people who will attempt to take advantage of your generosity with your time. It's important to maintain a balance between moving your own work forward and helping others, and if you find yourself too busy to work on your own ideas, you might need to reprioritize.
  3. Becoming obsessed with the postdoc clock and your next career move. Postdocs come with the unique time pressure to publish enough work to apply for an independent grant or to get enough experience for that job in industry.  We tend to become obsessed with the idea that the only thing that matters is the next step, at the sacrifice of our personal lives and our mental health. But overwork and career anxiety can also result in a loss of passion. If you find that you are not enjoying any aspect of your work, it's probably time to back up and refocus where you are putting your energy—the next job is not worth the work if you don't remember why you're doing it in the first place.

The important thing to remember is that you have the right to maintain your own work/life balance. Also, you are not alone. Building relationships with your postdoc colleagues is key, since you will become each other’s support network throughout your career. In the end, you are trying your best, and that is enough.